It’s not hard to believe that people tend to look down on others who they believe are less powerful than themselves. But did you know it can literally be true? A study published in 2013 shows this link.

Andy J Yap, a researcher at Columbia University who now works in the fields of Organisational Behaviour and Social Psychology, conducted a fascinating experiment. He asked subjects with differing levels of social power to guess the height and weight of others, both in person and from photographs. Sure enough, the study showed that people with greater power (such as executives and CEOs) judged others to be shorter than they really were.

Yap states that ‘when people feel powerful or feel powerless, it influences their perception of others’. In other words, we judge the power of others relative to our own. When we feel powerful, others appear less so – and powerlessness and smallness often go together in our minds. In fact, it’s said that CEOs tend to be taller than the average person, and there are even estimates that for each inch a person is above average height, they receive a higher salary per year.

It’ so easy to think of leaders who have used power for unethical or immoral purposes. This is why power isn’t a popular term in the work environment and it often holds more of a negative connotation than a positive. However, it’s important to hold on to the fact that power, wielded responsibly, has immense potential.

Nelson Mandela understood the true meaning of this. He once said, ‘When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.’ His country came before himself. If applied to a work context, the needs of our team members, employees and company should come before our own self-interest. The problem occurs when power goes to the head and not the heart. Again, in Mandela’s words, ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.’

As leaders, we have the power to encourage or discourage. Motivate or demotivate. Grow or destroy. One of the best ways to use the power of leadership is to support and appreciate others.

People throughout various organisations are malnourished when it comes to appreciation and encouragement.

The prolific writer Maya Angelou once said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ As leaders, let’s make it our mission not to look down on those less powerful, but to use our position and influence to better their everyday lives.


Studies in behavioural economics show that people in positions of power tend to subconsciously look down on others. We’d all agree that the abuse of power is one of the worst things a leader can do to those depend on them. It’s crucial that a conscious effort is made to realise the responsibility that a position of power brings. It affords no preferential right in this life, but puts us in a position to influence and empower others. If you have the opportunity to be in a position of power in any sphere of your life, use it wisely.

Author:  Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of  Discovery Health